I recently solved a history mystery, and it started with a tiny pencil.
I was looking through a box of old minutes from Congregation Beth Israel in Meridian, Mississippi, when the smallest, most dainty pencil, attached to a small ribbon, fell from a folder. It looked like something that would be found with an old fashioned dance card, or some an extravagant wedding idea found on Pinterest.
It was attached to a program from the 1927 convention of the Mississippi Federation of Temple Sisterhoods, which had been held in Meridian that year. But then, moving my attention past the dainty pencil, I noticed that the pencil had been used to scratch out the April date and replace it with November. Clearly, the women in Meridian had spent a lot of time and money on putting together such a large gathering. I was curious as to why they postponed the conference till later in the year. After all, they had already printed programs! Why the date change?
It was a mystery!
Luckily, we have all the minutes from the Meridian sisterhood in our collection, so I was able to find the notes from 1927 to try to see what had transpired. It didn’t take long for all the light bulbs to go off in my head. You’ll notice in the page from the meeting on May 2nd that Miss Sarah Marks, President of the State Federation, announced that “the Executive board rules to postpone the State Convention until fall due to the disastrous flood conditions.”
The Flood! Of course!
The flood of 1927, which I have written about before on this very blog, had stuck again. In another letter, Miss Marks continues: “Due to the flood condition that prevented a large number of delegates and visitors from attending the convention and out of sympathy and respect due those vitally interested in Sisterhood work, we deemed it wise to postpone our convention until the fall.”
For those of you who have been involved with conference planning, you only imagine the expletives that didn’t make it into these minutes. But you’ll be happy to know that a few pages into the future, on the meeting of December 7th, 1927, the committee reported that the conference was a major success and that everyone was pleased with Meridian’s beautiful hospitality.
The 270-plus community histories in the ISJL’s Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities contain countless stories of Jewish-owned businesses. Often, these stories are fairly typical: a small dry goods store grows into a big department store or maybe even a regional chain of shopping emporiums.
But in Norfolk, Virginia – just one of 23 Virginia encyclopedia histories we recently unveiled – I came across a unique story with an explosive ending (literally).
Dudley Cooper was an optometrist who got his start going door-to-door fitting people for eyeglasses. He later moved into various real estate ventures, and in 1942 he bought the dilapidated Ocean View Amusement Park. Cooper bought it for its prime ocean front property, and had plans to tear it down to develop the site. It was during World War II, and Norfolk was home to a large naval base with several other military installations in the area. The military brass was concerned by the dearth of wholesome recreational activities for off-duty sailors and soldiers in Norfolk, and in a bid to distract them from the bars and brothels in the area, convinced Cooper to reopen the amusement park. Their plan was evidently a success, as the rate of venereal disease among area military personnel sharply declined by 1943. Ocean View remained in business after the war and became a summer ritual for generations of children and their parents.
During the years of legal segregation, Ocean View was for whites-only. But in 1946, Cooper partnered with three prominent black businessmen to establish the Seaview Beach Amusement Park exclusively for African Americans. With both black and white staff and managers and nice new rides, Seaview was the nation’s only major amusement park for African Americans. In a 1950 newspaper article, Cooper called it “a victory sociologically but a dud financially.” After Ocean View was integrated in the 1960s, Seaview was closed.
By the 1970s, Ocean View began to lose money due to high maintenance costs and increased competition from newer amusement parks in the area. In 1976, the Hollywood movie “Rollercoaster,” starring Timothy Bottoms, George Segal, and Richard Widmark, was filmed at Ocean View, which brought attention to the park, but was not enough to save it. By 1978, Cooper had decided to close the park.
When he sold the property to the City of Norfolk, it was his responsibility to clear its structures, which would be a difficult and expensive undertaking. Enter film director Michael Trikilis, who was looking to shoot a disaster movie set at an amusement park and had heard about Ocean View’s demise. He proposed to Cooper’s son, Joel, and to his nephew, Richard Miller, that the family allow Trikilis to blow up the rides for his TV movie to be entitled, appropriately, “The Death of Ocean View Park.” The Coopers agreed, and the rest is Norfolk and TV movie history.
Destroying the Rocket rollercoaster was not as easy as it looked in the film. The ride was so well-made that two attempts to detonate it left The Rocket standing. Finally, after its supporting beams were cut and pulled down by a large tractor, The Rocket gave way. Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can witness the exciting climax of “The Death of Ocean View Park.” As you watch it, try to forget the bad acting and think about the important legacy of Dudley Cooper and his mission to provide wholesale entertainment to the people of Norfolk:
You can read more compelling (if less explosive) stories about the history of Jews in Virginia here.
Want some insights into a historian’s dilemma? It involves cultural identity. Geography. And NASCAR. (Well – sort of.)
The Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities now contains 250 community histories from 11 different southern states. As we get toward the end of our researching and writing, we are beginning to reach the edges of our territory, where the borders can get a little fuzzy. Covington and Newport, Kentucky, for example, are considered part of the south, but just across the river, Cincinnati, Ohio, is not.
Virginia, which will be completed and online this fall, presents an interesting case. Richmond, with Confederate statues lining Monument Avenue, remains culturally southern, while Alexandria feels little different from the suburb of any northern metropolis. Our encyclopedia history of Alexandria will tell the story of how the southern river port with a small Jewish congregation became enveloped by the expansion of Washington, D.C. after World War II. If one defines the south culturally and historically, rather than simply geographically, then Alexandria was once southern, but is no longer.
The shifting southern-ness of northern Virginia foreshadows the next big dilemma for the encyclopedia: Florida.
Originally, Florida wasn’t even included in the ISJL’s territory. But a few years ago, we took in the Sunshine State as our “12-state region” became the “13-state region.” We don’t serve the entire state, just the panhandle, which is sometimes affectionately called “Lower Alabama.” But after Virginia goes live in the near future, Florida is the last frontier for the encyclopedia. How much of Florida is southern, and which communities should we include in our encyclopedia?
When I give lectures about southern Jewish history, I usually cite recent population statistics, but I always exclude Florida. The main reason for this is that the explosion of the Jewish population of south Florida, fueled by retirees and northern transplants over the last several decades, has little to do with the history of Jews in the South. South Florida’s Jewish community has far more connections and cultural similarities with the Jewish community of New York than with Pensacola, Florida, let alone Greenville, Mississippi. The columnist Leonard Pitts, writing from Miami, once declared that south Florida was the only part of America where you have to go north to get to the South.
Also, far more Jews reside in south Florida than live in the entire South. When the last national Jewish population study included Florida as the South in its regional breakdown, we learned nothing about southern Jewish life, only south Florida Jewish life.
Once, when I was speaking to a group in Sarasota, I was nervous about so easily excluding Florida from the South. So I decided to ask my audience whether they consider themselves to be southerners. Only two people amongst a hundred or so raised their hands: one woman originally from Waco, Texas and a man from Georgia. The rest of the audience, all residents of Florida, had no identity as southerners. While this impromptu poll made me feel a little better about excluding Florida from my population figures, the problem of Florida and how we define the South has always gnawed at me.
Now it’s time to face this issue head on. Will I have to visit Key West and Miami Beach on my next research trip? Was Seinfeld’s portrayal of the Florida retirement community “Del Boca Vista” a humorous portrait of southern Jewish life? Were Morty and Helen Seinfeld southern Jews? I haven’t figured out the answers to these questions just yet, and would love to read your opinions on the subject. In the meantime, I am working on a theory about drawing the South’s border somewhere between Daytona Beach, home of the Daytona 500, and Orlando, home of Disney world. After all, the Walt Disney Company, run from a nice Jewish boy from New York seems Yankee – and what’s more southern than NASCAR?
Do you think of Florida when you think of “the South”? Why or why not?